'Joker' laughs its way to October box office record

Since making its debut at the Venice Film Festival last month, 'Joker' has been praised and criticised for its dark spin on the classic Batman villain

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Nico Tavernise / Warner Bros.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The filmmakers and studio behind Joker have reason to put on a happy face. Despite concerns over its violent themes and ramped up theater security, audiences flocked to the multiplex to check out the R-rated film this weekend resulting in a record October opening.

Warner Bros. said Sunday that Joker grossed an estimated $93.5 million in ticket sales from 4,374 screens in North America. The previous October record-holder was the Spider-Man spinoff Venom which opened to $80 million (Dh293.8m) last year. Internationally, Joker earned $140.5 million from 73 markets, resulting in a stunning $234 million global debut.

Review: Todd Phillips's 'Joker' changes the face of the popular character

"This was a much larger result at the box office than we had ever anticipated globally," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros' president of domestic distribution. "Putting records aside, we're just thrilled that audiences are embracing the movie as strong as they are."

Since debuting at the Venice Film Festival where it won the prestigious Golden Lion last month, Joker has been both praised and criticized for its dark spin on the classic Batman villain played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film from director and co-writer Todd Phillips was always seen as a bit of a gamble with one of the studios' most valuable pieces of intellectual property, hence its modest-for-a-comic-book-film $55 million budget.

But in the weeks leading up to its release, hype and uneasiness intensified beyond how audiences would react to placing this character in a realistic and unambiguously adult setting with Taxi Driver undertones. Responding to anxiety that the film might have the potential to inspire violence, multiple theater chains banned costumes or reaffirmed earlier policies regarding masks and authorities in numerous cities said they were stepping police patrols around theaters. Some relatives of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting even asked Warner Bros to commit to gun control causes — the studio said it always has.

While some worried this would impact the box office, it did not ultimately detract audiences from turning out opening weekend; the box office surpassed industry expectations and may rise even higher when weekend actuals are reported Monday. Although the film got a B+ CinemaScore from opening night audiences, the studio is optimistic about its long-term playability.

"Sixty-six percent of the audience was under the age of 35," Goldstein said. "That tells you that the audience will expand out with that younger group as time goes on." The younger audience also gave the film a more favorable A- CinemaScore.

Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for box office tracker Comscore, said that the convergence of critical acclaim and controversy actually helped the film become bigger than expected at the box office.

"It's the ultimate water-cooler movie right now," Dergarabedian said.

He added that it was important that Joker was always marketed as a "very dark, R-rated film."

"It always had an element of mystery and danger surrounding it," Dergarabedian said. "If it were a G-rated film, controversy like this would not be a good thing."

In the landscape of R-rated comic book films, Joker is nestled between Deadpool and its sequel, both of which opened over $125 million, and Logan, which launched with $88.4 million.

Joker was the only new wide release this weekend, which is down from last year when both Venom and A Star is Born opened. Holdovers populated the top 10: The more family friendly Abominable landed in second place with $12 million in its second weekend and Downton Abbey took third in its third weekend with $8 million.

Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips on the set of Joker. Nico Tavernise / Warner Bros.

With awards buzz behind it, the Judy Garland biopic Judy, starring Renee Zellweger, added nearly 1,000 screens this weekend and placed seventh with $4.5 million from 1,458 locations.

And in limited release, Pedro Almodóvar's critically acclaimed Pain and Glory launched on four screens to a solid $160,087. Less fortunate was the Natalie Portman-led astronaut drama Lucy in the Sky which earned only $55,000 from 37 theaters resulting in a dismal $1,500 per screen average.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at US and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1.Joker, $93.5 million ($140.5 million international).

2. Abominable, $12 million ($24.6 million international).

3. Downton Abbey, $8 million ($6.6 million international).

4. Hustlers, $6.3 million ($1.9 million international).

5. It Chapter Two, $5.4 million ($5.6 million international).

6. Ad Astra, $4.6 million ($7.3 million international).

7. Judy, $4.4 million ($1.9 million international).

8. Rambo: Last Blood, $3.6 million ($4.3 million international).

9. War, $1.5 million ($2.9 million international).

10. Good Boys, $900,000.